Could an MRI 'See' If You Will Become a Habitual Smoker?

By Paul Gaita 11/13/14

Researchers in Australia will follow nicotine users over the next five years to determine whether or not people are fated to become smokers.

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Researchers at the University of Melbourne, Australia will use magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) to determine whether an individual’s neural makeup can determine if they will become addicted to nicotine.

The tests are the second stage of a study conducted by Associate Professor Rob Hester and his team, which will follow 144 individuals with varying degrees of nicotine use—occasional users, those who would qualify as dependent on the drug, and non-users—for the next five years to see if there are differences at the neural level that could indicate whether a person could be “predestined” for addiction. The subjects will be placed in a functional magnetic resonance imaging machine and asked to complete tasks that will determine their ability to deliberately stop and start behaviors, such as pushing a button until asked to stop.

“It turns out that these types of tasks tap into the ability for self-control that is of interest to us when researching addiction,” said Hester. “They also correlate very well with the problems that people have in the real world.”

Their initial tests have suggested that a loss of neurological sensitivity—essentially, becoming numb to the idea of negative consequences—may provide the key factor in determining susceptibility to addiction. Occasional smokers, whom the research has shown to exhibit a poorer sense of self-control and a heightened sensitivity to reward, may have come to believe that the short-term relief of a cigarette carries less freight than the benefits of abstinence or reduced risk to smoking-related diseases.

Hester hopes that his study will provide a more definitive picture of the impact of this reduced sensitivity on dependent behavior. By doing so, it could provide more concrete evidence to assist in public health efforts to reduce smoking.

“Nicotine dependence is the single biggest cause of preventable death in Australia,” he notes. Smoking is a key factor in most of the top 10 leading causes of death in the United States, including heart disease, cancer, chronic lower respiratory disease and diabetes.

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Paul Gaita lives in Los Angeles. He has contributed to the Los Angeles Times, Variety, LA Weekly, and The Los Angeles Beat, among many other publications and websites.